For US progressives, the fight has only just begun

For Arab and Muslim Democrats, Biden's victory means the fight has only just begun
6 min read
24 November, 2020
In-depth: Progressives and minority voters helped Biden across the finish line in key swing states. Now they want to make sure their policy agenda is heard.
Activists and politicians are hoping to see a new era of sustained constituent participation. [Getty]
When the US presidential election was called for Joe Biden, more than half the country seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief - but not for long. Leaders are now urging voters to stay engaged in politics and not take anything for granted. 

"I always say this: It doesn't stop after we elect the candidate. It begins when they're elected. Even though they make decisions on our behalf, they need to make decisions based on the needs of the community," says Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh, Michigan state director for the Campus Vote Project.  

"The only way for us to see advancement is to make sure our voices are heard. Biden said on day one he'd reverse the ban on Muslims. We expect that to happen. If it doesn't, we'll take it to the streets."  

The victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election comes in large part thanks to the teamwork from progressives and voters from minority communities who, along with moderates, were collectively able to get out around 80 million votes, breaking Barack Obama's 2008 record for the most votes ever cast in a US presidential election.  

Though Biden was generally not the first choice for those on the left wing of the Democratic Party, many saw the alliance as crucial for removing Donald Trump, whom they largely saw as a dangerous man and a threat to democracy.  

The only way for us to see advancement is to make sure our voices are heard

It didn't take long before moderate Democrats blamed progressives for a surprising loss of seats in the House of Representatives, citing during a now-notorious conference call the "defund the police" slogan which gained traction with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the summer. 

This is despite the high rate of voter registration during the demonstrations as well as no losses for the house candidates who support Medicare for All, while the most progressive candidates won by wide margins. It will take time for studies to determine why voters made the decisions they did at the polls. 

Read more: Trump campaigned on hate in Minnesota.
Somalis helped vote him out

Nevertheless, now that the election is behind them, activists and politicians are hoping to see a new era of sustained constituent participation. 

"We have to acknowledge the historic victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The amount of groundwork it took by progressives and the main party shows that we can work together. It's good for democracy," says Mo Seifeldein, a council member in Alexandria in northern Virginia.   

"The fight for progressive policy will continue. That won't be easy. We've already seen some misinformed members of congress who barely won their seats, trying to vilify progressives," he says. "There needs to be unity within the party. At the end of the day, we're all trying to achieve the same objectives."  

At a time when the country is still going through a difficult transition, it is not always easy to cast aside differences, particularly when one has been actively advocating for issues they hold dear.  

Iman Jodeh, a state representative-elect from Colorado, suggests that people look at the "long game" in trying to reach their policy goals. "Progressive policy sometimes happens incrementally, and you have to work toward an ultimate goal," she says.  

You can make changes internally to the system. When the fruit is ripe, you pick it. But you have to plant the seeds first

"One thing I've noticed, even within my own Muslim community, is that they're looking at the administration and saying that they've hurt Muslims around the world by standing with Israel. They're focused on a few issues to dictate their vote," she says, referring to the incoming presidential ticket.  

"What's really important, when you're voting for progressive policies with an administration that's not as progressive as you'd like, is to play the long game, hold them accountable, and move the needle toward more progressive policies." 

She sees the concept of "socialism" evolving as something positive among younger generations, a term that often carries trauma for older generations, including immigrants who fled oppressive governments.   

Read more: How Arabs and Muslims helped flip Michigan blue for Biden

Along similar lines, Basim ElKarra, an executive board member of the California Democratic Party, sees messaging as an important factor for engaging constituents who are not fully informed about how policies affect them.  

"Progressive activists have a challenge on their hands," he says. "There are segments of the [Arab American] community who did support Trump. We need education campaigns to show why progressive policies are aligned with the community." 

Joe Biden's victory came in large part thanks to the teamwork from progressives and voters from minority communities

According to a poll by the Arab American Institute shortly before the presidential election, more than a third of Arab Americans preferred Trump as president. Looking to the future, Elkarra says, "There should be more organising in the community, canvassing earlier, talking to community members one-on-one. When the propaganda and misinformation campaigns come, people will be ready and understand."   

On the other hand, an important part of staying informed and engaged comes from the communities themselves, says Ahmad Zahra, a council member from Fullerton in southern California. For him, constituents showing up to council meetings can help him get the votes he needs to push through policy. 

Read more: Iman Jodeh: Palestinian, Muslim and elected 
to Colorado's state house

"We have short and long-term strategies. Unless we're a part of the process, none of it matters. It doesn't mean running for office. You can make changes internally to the system. When the fruit is ripe, you pick it. But you have to plant the seeds first. We tend to go for fruits," he says. 

"The Arab American community fights for certain causes. We've got to plant seeds to reap the rewards. We have the right to vote, and we need to understand it doesn't end there."  

Despite some initial optimism about maintaining voter engagement in these post-election days, Seifeldein is already worried about 2022, as he sees progressives and minorities being blamed for moderates' losses after a national election in which they arguably helped Biden across the finish line in key swing states, such as Georgia, Michigan and Minnesota.  

"We need to keep people engaged. If we don't do that, we could see regression. Leaders need to continue to reach out to people who haven't voted," he says. "I'm encouraged by the high turnout. But minorities might not turn out in the mid-term elections. We need to keep people, because it could be difficult to get them back." 

Brooke Anderson is a freelance journalist covering international politics, business and culture

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews